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How Too Much Stress Can Cause Weight Gain (and What to Do About It)

February 12, 2020

The question of whether excess amounts of cortisol can lead to weight gain is essentially the same as asking if too much stress can cause you to put on unwanted pounds. The answer in both cases is yes.

Cortisol — a natural stress hormone — is responsible for regulating your metabolism, so it’s important to follow common wellness guidelines to lower it. From finding time for relaxation to improving your diet and exercise, you can ensure that you control your cortisol and not the other way around. 

What Is Cortisol? 

Cortisol is a hormone naturally produced by your body. Created by the adrenal glands located on your kidneys, cortisol is released when you’re under stress. This sends your body into fight-or-flight mode, temporarily pausing regular bodily functions and slowing your metabolism. While this hormone is essential to survival, it can become harmful in excess amounts.

Cortisol Can Lead to Weight Gain

Cortisol stimulates your fat and carbohydrate metabolism, creating a surge of energy in your body. While this process is essential for survival situations, it also increases your appetite. Additionally, elevated cortisol levels can cause cravings for sweet, fatty and salty foods. This means you’re more likely to indulge in french fries and a milkshake than you are a well-balanced meal. 

An excess of cortisol also can lead your body to produce less testosterone. This may cause a decrease in muscle mass, as well as slow down how many calories your body burns. 

Why This Slow Down Can Be Harmful

Because your metabolism is responsible for converting food into energy, a change in how this system works can cause potential problems. As outlined by the American Psychological Association, these issues include: 

  • Weight gain

  • Fatigue

  • Depression

  • Health complications, such as high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes

  • Reduced effectiveness of the immune system

Furthermore, the weight that people gain as a result from a spike in cortisol is often around the abdomen. Fat accumulated around the waist area is attributed to the development of cardiovascular disease, earning it the nickname of “toxic fat.”

How to Prevent Future Health Issues

Although decreasing your stress levels may feel impossible some days, you can still manage the effects of elevated cortisol. To begin with, practicing relaxation through mindfulness, meditation, yoga or deep breathing can help bring the production of this hormone back down to normal levels. 

You’ll also prevent the excess storage of empty calories by ensuring that you consume a diet high in quality foods. Even though your body may be craving a quick fix, aim to eat mostly whole, plant-based foods. Of course, making the decision to eat right isn’t always easy, but it’s worth it. By monitoring your diet, the calories you consume will be turned into energy, not converted into fat and stored by the body.

Finally, exercise is an excellent way to manage your stress hormones too. Whether you go out for a run, take a daily walk with your family or hit the gym, exercising will help maintain your lean body mass. This is especially important during prolonged periods of high cortisol levels.

Beware of Unsupported Claims

In recent years, the diet industry has tried to capitalize on findings from studies about cortisol and weight gain. Perhaps you’ve come across advertisements promoting dietary supplements claiming to lower cortisol and enhance weight loss. Most medical professionals advise patients to avoid these products as no independent studies published in respected, peer-reviewed medical journals have shown that these supplements have any value in cortisol reduction or weight loss. 

Overall, it’s important to remember that there’s no miracle cure for elevated cortisol. Exercise, eating right and relaxation are the best methods for lowering these harmful hormone levels that have risen in response to stress.

Learn More About the Orlando Health National Training Center

The Orlando Health National Training Center, on the campus of Orlando Health South Lake Hospital, provides comprehensive wellness programs, events and training services to support our community and athletes in their achievement for health and performance excellence.

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